US agenda in Asia and the risks that Aquino is courting

Officials say the Philippines needs more US troops to counter China's "bullying", but is it really for the national interest? (Photo from inquirer.net)

Manila and Washington have both denied that the bilateral strategic dialogue between their senior diplomats and defense officials last week intends to bring back permanent American military bases in the Philippines. The talks, they said, is just meant to explore increased US military presence in the country such as conducting more joint exercises and rotating more American troops.

Officials said that the threat posed by China to both countries justifies the direction that the dialogue aims to pursue. The US State Department declared that protecting the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is an interest shared by the Philippines and the US. Its Defense Department said that they want to discuss how America’s enhanced posture in Asia can be useful to the Philippines. Meanwhile, for our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), “we need to have a good neighbor on the block” so that the country can no longer be bullied by China.

What’s driving America’s renewed interest in Asia? Is it really for the national interest to play an eager part in the US agenda in the region?  Or is the Aquino administration courting undue risks by hosting heightened US military presence and upping the ante in the country’s territorial dispute with China?

Economic crisis drives US pivot to Asia

The expanded military cooperation with the Philippines forms part of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia, as State Secretary Hillary Clinton called the shift in US focus from Afghanistan and Iraq to Asia, where “the future of politics will be decided”. This pivot is being driven by the ever worsening crisis of global capitalism of which the US is the center. In an essay entitled America’s Pacific Century in November last year, Clinton wrote that Asia will yield the biggest returns in US investments at a time when the country is facing a severe economic crisis. Clinton described Asia as central to US economic and strategic interests with its vast markets and investment areas crucial to its own economic recovery.

Under the Obama administration, the US has been steadily laying the groundwork for a reinvigorated American economic clout in Asia. In last year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Hawaii, President Barack Obama was able to secure wide support for the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal to enhance US free trade and investment with the region. The agreement, which the Philippines will soon join, is expected to be finalized this year. Its increasing economic interests in Asia thus necessitate the refocusing of US military projection in the region.

Expanded military ties

The Philippines, along with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Thailand, have long maintained treaty alliances with the US. But the ascent of China as an economic behemoth has posed new challenges for American interests in the region. China is being depicted as having the greatest potential to compete militarily with the US and a threat to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which for the first time is being considered as a matter of US national interest. Thus, as Clinton wrote, there is a need not only to sustain but to “update” US’s existing alliances which will serve as the fulcrum of its pivot to Asia. This entails the expansion of existing military cooperation and forging new ties for defense and security.

When finalized, the deal with the Philippines will follow improved US military arrangements with other long-time allies like Australia and Singapore. The pact with Australia allows the US to station up to 2,500 Marines in a military base in Darwin while the deal with Singapore will let it station combat Navy ships for forward deployment. The US has been building up as well its military relations with Vietnam through joint naval exercises, and in August last year, the former Cold War foes forged their first formal military deal. It is also aggressively pursuing new bilateral ties including even with Burma, which Clinton visited last December – the first trip by a US Secretary of State in more than half a century.

US priorities for 21st century defense

Updating existing military alliances and forging new ones, however, have to be pursued in the midst of the harsh economic realities facing the US. Amid its raging public debt crisis that has been caused in part by costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration released this month its latest defense strategy document Sustaining US global leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense. The document was the result of “an assessment of US defense strategy in the light of the changing geopolitical environment and changing fiscal circumstances”.

Consequently, the latest US defense strategy calls for developing “innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches” to achieve US security objectives, relying on bilateral and multilateral training exercises, rotational deployments and advisory capabilities. This will allow US forces to “conduct a sustainable pace of presence operations abroad” and at the same time let it commit to a large-scale operation in one region while still having the capability to impose “unacceptable costs” on an aggressor in a second region. But given its reduced resources, the US needs to make thoughtful choices on the location and frequency of these operations. As mentioned, Asia is high on Obama’s list of security priorities. Apparently referring to the South China Sea, the defense strategy reaffirmed US commitment to “assure access to and use of global commons by maintaining relevant and interoperable military capabilities”.

Economic sanction

News of expanded PH-US military cooperation earned strong condemnation from Global Times, one of the mouthpieces of the Chinese government. In its editorial Make Philippines pay for balancing act, the broadsheet denounced the Philippines for inviting more US troops and increased presence by using the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. It called for well “well-measured sanctions” against the Philippines and “make it ponder the choice of losing a friend such as China and being a vain partner of the US”. Global Times proposed that China “consider cooling down its business ties with the Philippines”.

While not an official policy statement of the Chinese government, what the Global Times editorial said is not an empty threat. It underscored one of the risks that come with Aquino’s excessively pro-US foreign policy. The export-oriented Philippine economy has seen the demand for its products abroad decline amid the raging global crisis, substantially slowing down gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Philippine exports have contracted by 5.6% from January to November 2011 with exports to the US, which is at the center of the crisis, falling by 6.2 percent. On the contrary, amid the contraction in exports to the US, exports to China remained robust, growing by almost 9.9% during the same period.

False sense of security

More importantly, increased US presence presents a continuing risk to the country’s national sovereignty and its people. The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which Filipino and American officials said will remain the basis of expanded military cooperation, has allowed the virtual permanent basing here of as many as 600 US soldiers that for legal experts and some legislators is an infringement of the 1987 Constitution. Several cases of human rights violations and other abuses involving American troops have been reported including the highly controversial Subic rape case.

And worse, while the Philippines is willing to face these risks, Aquino is clinging to a false sense of security by inviting more American soldiers and more US military ships in the country. Last year, the US embassy in Manila clarified that the US “does not take side in regional territorial disputes” in reaction to a Malacañang statement saying that Washington will surely honor its commitment with the Philippines and come to the aid of the country in case a military conflict erupts in the South China Sea. Instead, the US will simply arm the Philippines by selling it “affordable military hardware” so that it can “defend itself”. Ironically, the possibility of an actual military conflict with China is being stoked by aggressive projection of US military might in the region in connivance with the Aquino administration, putting the country and our people at risk.

In the end, the question is not which party to side with, but how the Philippines can best protect its territorial integrity. It is not in our interest to play a willing part in US military maneuverings in the region. If there is a perception that China is bullying us, the solution is not to run for help to a bigger bully. Diplomacy within the framework of mutually beneficial relations with our neighbors in the region should be our utmost weapon. Clearly, the best foreign policy is one that is anchored on the assertion of national sovereignty and not one that relies on a Big Brother to protect the country’s interests. #

Advertisements

Noynoy’s US visit: RP to get more counterinsurgency aid via Millennium Challenge Corp.

Pres. Aquino's counterinsurgency campaign will get a boost from the $434-M MCC grant for "poverty reduction" (Photo by Rem Zamora)

One of the anticipated highlights of President Noynoy Aquino’s trip to the US is the formal signing of the $434-million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) under its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). For the cash-strapped Malacañang, the aid is significant not only because of its size, which for a foreign grant is quite big. Politically, the MCC grant is also an unmistakable sign of strong US confidence in the new administration as a reliable ally in protecting American interests in the region. According to an ABS-CBN report quoting Washington insiders, the MCC Board led by State Department Sec. Hillary Clinton did not even wait for their regular fourth quarter meeting to act on the Philippines’ grant application.

Actually, as early as 2009, the country was already eligible for a “Compact” with the MCC. Formal signing, however, was delayed for political reasons. The Obama administration apparently feared that the “integrity” of the MCC grant might be questioned if it will sign the compact with the Arroyo government, which had an awful corruption record and an even more terrible human rights record. The MCC supposedly helps only those countries that practice “good governance”.  While Mrs. Arroyo had displayed avid support for the US in the nine years she was in power, her administration was already too unpopular to be useful for American interests. Thus, the US had to wait for the results of the May 2010 elections and ensure that its favored candidate will win.

Stronger RP-US military and security ties

Early developments indicate that Philippine-US relations under the Aquino administration will be defined by stronger military and security ties, with Washington providing more defense and counter-insurgency-related assistance. In July, Reuters reported that the US has pledged to provide $18.4-million precision-guided missiles this year that will be used against Moro rebels. In August, US Ambassador Harry Thomas announced that the US has donated four “sophisticated” gunboats worth P72 million to the Philippine National Police (PNP) for coastline security. Later, the US Embassy disclosed that Washington has decided to increase its law enforcement assistance to the Philippines from P495 million this year to P630 million in 2011.

But the MCC grant is so far the largest assistance that the US has committed to the Aquino administration. Technically, the $434-million grant is not categorized as a military or counter-insurgency aid. According to MCC and Palace officials, the money will be used for the Philippine government’s development and poverty reduction efforts.  However, since the Bush administration released its post 9/11 National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2002, development aid meant for poverty reduction has been systematically aligned with US war on terror efforts that target legitimate rebel and anti-US imperialism groups in its neocolonies such as the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – New People’s Army (NPA).

Militarization of US development aid

The 2002 NSS established “global development”, for the first time, as the third pillar of US national security along with defense and diplomacy. Budget justifications for foreign assistance also began to underscore the anti-terrorism campaign as the top foreign aid priority of the US. The Bush administration also made it clear in its 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism that a state’s stand on terrorism will be considered when providing aid to that country. It was in this context that the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) as a new development assistance program was created. Under the Obama administration, foreign aid is expected to play an even deeper role in protecting and advancing US geopolitical interests, especially since all-out military interventions such as the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq have lost legitimacy and have proven too politically and financially costly for the crisis-ridden US economy.

In the Philippines, for instance, the MCC grant will be used to bankroll known counterinsurgency projects masquerading as development/poverty reduction initiatives. These so-called development projects have been designed and initiated by the Arroyo administration, which taking its cue from the US’s National Security Strategy, crafted its own National Internal Security Plan (NISP). Arroyo’s NISP systematically combined military campaigns and poverty alleviation/social development initiatives, some of which are funded by official development assistance (ODA) such as the MCC grant.

Under the NISP, the Arroyo administration implemented the Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL) military campaign, which aside from assassinating, abducting, and persecuting political activists from legal people’s organizations, also had “peace and development activities” that aim to undermine the influence of the CPP-NPA in remote barangays in the countryside. Elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) participated in the implementation of poverty alleviation and development efforts of civilian government agencies, an approach that the military leadership claims has significantly weakened the communist rebels.

KALAHI for anti-insurgency

One of these projects is the Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan (Unity against Poverty– KALAHI) program. KALAHI is the national government’s overarching program for a focused, accelerated, convergent, expanded, and strategic effort to reduce poverty. Among its main components is the KALAHI-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services (CIDSS), which started in 2003 with $100-million in funding from the World Bank. Under the MCC grant, KALAHI-CIDSS, a “community-based, rural development program”, will be expanded through a $120-million funding.  

As envisioned in the NISP, KALAHI shall have an inter-agency convergent mechanism composed of the National KALAHI Convergent Group (NKCG) and the Regional KALAHI Convergent Group (RKCG). Among the functions and responsibilities of the RKCG, which is made up of the regional counterparts of national agencies in the NKCG plus Local Government Units (LGUs), is “close collaboration with the AFP and the PNP” to ensure a strong link between the anti-poverty and internal security efforts of the government. More than half of KALAHI sites are classified as conflict areas, most of which are CPP-NPA guerilla fronts. (Read here for an example)

Development projects for militarist pacification

In reality, the KALAHI-CIDSS is essentially the “social development” component of the AFP’s pacification campaign. For example, to help implement the projects in Muslim areas in Mindanao under the KALAHI-CIDSS, Mrs. Arroyo announced in 2003 the formation of Salaam Soldiers. Salaam means peace and in this case is an acronym for the Special Advocacy on Literacy/Livelihood Advancement for Muslims.

At least half of this special team is composed of Muslim regular soldiers and integrees (former MILF or MNLF rebels) who have been tasked to provide “psycho-social and medico-civic services” as well as to ensure peace and order in their area. But the AFP itself said that the Sala’am Soldiers are similar to the special operations teams (SOTs) deployed in insurgency areas in the early 1990s.

The SOTs combined civic action with intelligence-gathering and were largely credited for the decline of the communist insurgency in some regions of the country. Together with vigilante and paramilitary groups, they were accused of countless human rights violations in Mindanao.

In addition, the AFP, the Department of National Defense (DND), and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) also directly implement development projects under KALAHI through the KALAHI-KALAYAAN to supposedly “address the needs of the poor communities in conflict areas”.

Samar Road

Another project that will be funded by the MCC grant is the $214-million construction and repair of 220 kilometers of roads that cut across the most marginalized communities of Samar Island. The so-called Samar Road will pass through 15 municipalities and aims to improve access to markets and services for farmers, fishers, and small businesses.

But why did Samar get such special attention from the Philippine government and the MCC? According to the AFP, the island remains “a big challenge” to the Army when it comes to crushing insurgency. Meanwhile, in a recent press conference, Samar Governor Sharee Ann Tan-Delos Santos said that in order to help the government and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in their aim to eradicate the problem of insurgency in the province of Samar, there will be constructions of additional provincial roads that will inter-connect the far-flung towns and barangays in Samar. The AFP’s 8th Infantry Division is also currently implementing KALAHI-KALAYAAN projects in various villages around the province.

Samar has been described as a “killing field” due to an intensifying counterinsurgency campaign of the AFP in the province. Among the victims of assassination by suspected military elements was parish priest and human rights advocate Reverend Cecilio Lucero of Catubig, Northern Samar, which according to human rights group Karapatan is the first recorded assassination of a Catholic priest since the Marcos dictatorship. Just last August 25, Casiano Abing, a Bayan Muna member, was shot dead in Balangiga, Eastern Samar. Karapatan lists Samar as among the most heavily affected by human rights violations involving state security agents.

Distorting development work, more human rights abuses

Despite the many cases of human rights violations under the Oplan Bantay Laya including the extrajudicial killings (more than 1,000 since 2001), abductions (more than 200), and legal persecution of innocent civilians tagged by the military as CPP-NPA members or supporters, the Aquino administration has decided to extend the campaign until yearend. (Read the latest report on the human rights situation in the Philippines here) Under Aquino’s three-month old presidency, seven activists have already been assassinated under the murderous OBL.

A new counterinsurgency campaign that will supposedly replace the OBL is currently being developed, and according to an Army spokesman, would entail more “developmental projects”. And it seems that like his predecessor, President Aquino will increasingly use foreign development aid such as the $434-million MCC grant as part of government’s counterinsurgency campaign.

Development workers and activists have been questioning the use of poverty reduction projects for the AFP’s militarist pacification campaign. Resources intended for poverty alleviation and development but used within a strategic framework of subsuming the peace and development process under a military-defined internal security effort will only help perpetuate the conflict and the rampant violation of the people’s most fundamental human rights.

It is true that the greater the poverty of the people, the more that they will embrace revolution to achieve social justice such as the four-decade civil war being waged by the NPA. But using supposed poverty reduction and development projects as part of a military campaign to end the insurgency shortcuts the process of achieving genuine and lasting peace, and thus could never truly address the root causes of the conflict.